Best Japanese American Books for Kids
The story of Japanese immigration is also true for my own family history. Changes in Japan during the Meiji Restoration from 1868 to 1912 wrought great changes in Japan as the country tried to modernize. The old feudal system of titled landowners was abruptly stripped away, and the daimyo domains of titled landowners were turned into prefectures. For those families including my own, they were forced to buy back their own lands as some of their lost lands included sacred family burial grounds. To earn the money, large numbers of Japanese men found work in Hawaii in the pineapple and sugar cane plantations and from there, migrated to the mainland.
Following in the wake of the Chinese immigrants marked the Japanese immigrants as a part of that group, and resulted in a negative attitude towards the Japanese immigrants almost immediately and this negative attitude lasted for more than 50 years. At war with Japan during WWII brought prejudice and fear of Japanese Americans to new heights and resulted in forced internment camps, a low point for American history.
Throughout it all, Japanese Americans preserved, pushing their children into lucrative careers in the sciences and trying to assimilate post WWII so that they would encounter less prejudice. I think this is the reason for a relative dearth of well-known Japanese-American children’s authors, which the one exception being Cynthia Kadohata. It was strange to me that many important Japanese stories were not told by Japanese Americans. I tried, therefore, to focus my list on lesser known authors telling important stories. I hope this list will inspire more authors in this genre!
For a brief history of Japanese immigration, go here.
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
10 year old Manami tries to sneak her dog into internment camp when her family is separated during WWII due to anti-Japanese American laws enacted. She and her parents and grandfather must leave Bainbridge Island in Washington for a dreary camp in the desert of California. They lose everything they own, save for a suitcase they can carry. Manami loses even more; her voice is gone from the trauma and she doesn’t speak after her dog is taken away. The riot in Manzanar is not well known in U.S. history, and this chapter book gives back some of the humanity taken away from the Japanese Americans who were forced into concentration camps for simply looking like the enemy. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
Finally, a Japanese-American chapter book set after WWII! Lorenzi wraps her story around kite flying, connecting two cousins: Hiroshi, a boy from Japan and Skye a hapa girl (half Japanese/half Caucasian) in Washington, D.C. In kite fighting, you have to know when to loosen the line to keep the kite afloat just as it seems like it’s going to fall out of the sky. Skye and Hiroshi’s grandfather knows that balance, in life and in kite fighting. By moving to D.C. for cancer treatments, the grandfather has a chance to repair his relationship with Skye’s dad, whose marriage to a non-Japanese woman caused a family feud.
Skye too must learn to “loosen the line.” She’s caught between having to help her cousin navigate his way through a new school, learning both English and American customs, while also resenting him. She’s never really felt different having grown up American, but now there is this tug towards her Japanese heritage including being forced to learn Japanese which might cost her place on her All Star soccer camp.
Still, she cherishes spending time with Grandpa and learning about kite building and kite fighting. Will kite flying and the upcoming kite battle at the National Cherry Blossom Festival bring the cousins closer together or tear them apart? [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko written and translated by David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, illustrated by Tshikado Hajiri
All Japanese school children study the deeply empathetic nature poems of Misuzu Kaneko; her poetry nearly lost due to her short, tragic life. Think of her as the Japanese Pablo Neruda and/or Emily Dickenson. This beautiful picture book chronicles her life and showcases her poetry. It’s a new kind of biography poetry hybrid picture book that is getting 2017 Caldecott buzz. [poetry/biography picture book, ages 4 and up]
Umbrella by Taro Yashima
With Japanese words throughout, this is a sweet and gentle story of a little girl, Momo (peach in Japanese), who is excited to use her new present of an umbrella and new rain boots. [picture book, ages 4-8]
I tire a little of all the WWII internment story lines. I do think it’s important, but there is more to the Japanese American experience that just that period of time. When I found this book at the library, I was surprised that Allen Say wrote middle grade fiction. I always thought of him as a picture book illustrator and author. I read the book, expecting not to like it and was pleasantly surprised to find that it kept my interest. First of all, though the book is set in post WWII Japan, the book focuses on a coming-of-age story of a middle grade boy who is unusual for many reasons. His mother comes from a Samurai aristocratic background but married a Korean. Then got divorced! That is very unusual for this time. And the boy is determined to apprentice with a famous cartoonist. I wondered if the story rang so true because it was Say’s own story. I finished the book, satisfied by a good read and then researched it. Yes, it is his own story and what a fascinating person he is! [chapter book, ages 9-14]
The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida
I read this story a long time ago and remembered that it was a particularly sad story of internment that I couldn’t bring myself to read to my girls. The little Japanese girl is given a bracelet by her American friend that she brings to internment camp that gets lost. [picture book, ages 8-12]
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr
A story about post bombing Hiroshima where Sadako, who loves to run, becomes ill due to the radiation from the bomb. It is believed in Japan that folding a thousand paper cranes brings girls good luckand good health. [chapter book, ages 8-12]
[chapter book, ages 10-14]
An Illustrated History of Japan by Shigeo Nishimura
A gorgeously illustrated history of Japan. It would be a great reference book, particularly to look through for the artwork. Each period of history is briefly detailed. [picture book, ages 8-12]
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by
Historical fiction has never been this exciting as the rise and fall of an unlikely battle hero, Minamoto Yoshitsune, who carved a piece of history for himself as Japan’s most famous samurai warrior. He played a huge role in the rise of the Minamoto clan which also marked a new epoch in Japanese history, the Heian period, when powerful aristocratic families ruled due to a weak emperor. Meticulously historically accurate but written with a modern voice, this is historical fiction of blood, guts, and decapitations to satisfy those who want real life action and adventure. [chapter book, ages 12 and up]
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
Pair this is Samurai Rising for another historical fiction perspective of life during feudal Japan. This is the true story a young fishman boy, 14-year-old Nakahama Manjirō, and his four friends who were ship wrecked on the island Torishima. Their rescue by an American whaling boat brought them on a journey to America. Manjiro returns to Japan years later, arriving during a critical point in Japanese history and playing a pivotal role. Can a simple fisherman become a samarai nobleman? [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
Top 10: Japanese American Children’s Books (ages 2-16)
10. Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki
Even though Suki’s sisters teaser her, she wears her beloved kimono (yukata) to the first day of school. It was a gift from her obachan, grandmother, and she has especially fond memories of spending time at a (Obon) street festival dancing with her. But is it a good idea to look so different? [picture book, ages 4-7]
9. Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells
Rosemary Well’s has incorporated traditional Japanese art themes into her luscious illustrations about Yoko communicating with her grandparents back in Japan. A sweet and endearing story. [picture book, ages 2-6]
8. A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai
A bi-lingual (Japanese/English) story about the author’s grandmother who was interned at Topaz and really did grow 8 foot sunflowers in the desert. A stoic story about coping with internment. This is the author’s first book. [picture book, ages 7-11]
7. A Jar of Dreams by Yoshiko Uchida
11-year-old Rinko lives in Berkeley, California during the Great Depression and life isn’t easy, especially when you are Japanese American because she encounters prejudice almost daily. When her family opens a small laundry, their local competitor, a well-known bigot and bully, threatens them. Things change when her Aunt Waka comes to visit from Japan, and she helps to convince them to chase their dreams, even if it seems improbable that they will be given the same opportunities as non-Asians. Despite the prejudice that her family faces, Rinko learns to take pride in her Japanese self.
A Jar of Dreams is an accurate portrait of what life was like for Japanese immigrants pre- WWII, but it also details the determination, hard-work, and strong familial bonds that propelled them to succeed. [chapter book, ages 10-14]
6. Tokyo Friends by Betty Reynolds
Katie is a young American girl living in modern-day Tokyo. Spend time with Katie and her Japanese friends learning about Japanese culture, holidays and the Japanese language. And the story rhymes! [picture book, ages 2-12]
5. Tea With Milk by Alan Say
May’s parents return to Japan and it’s a tough adjustment for her to make. She prefers her tea with milk and sugar but in Japan, she must drink green tea, go to high school all over again to learn to be a proper Japanese lady, and assume her Japanese name, Masako. Finally, she rebels and moves to Osaka where she gets a job and meets a man that prefers his tea with milk and sugar. This is the love story of Alan Say’s parents. [picture book, ages 6-9]
4. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
This Newbery Award winning novel is a Japanese Grapes of Wrath story about the Takashima family as they move from Iowa to Georgia in the 1950’s and work menial, grueling jobs at a non-unionized poultry farm. The three kids, Lynn, Katie and Sammy, manage to have fun and dream of better times ahead despite their difficult conditions until Lynn comes down with a fatal illness. The book manages to portray life for post-WWII Japanese Americans in an insightful and realistic way. [chapter book, ages 10-14]
3. Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata
From Starred Review, School Library Journal. Grade 5-8–When Pearl Harbor is attacked, the lives of a Japanese-American girl and her family are thrown into chaos. Sumiko, 12, and her younger brother, Tak-Tak, live with their aunt and uncle, grandfather Jiichan, and adult cousins on a flower farm in Southern California. Though often busy with chores, Sumiko enjoys working with the blossoms, particularly stock, or weedflowers (fragrant plants grown in a field). In the difficult days that follow the bombing, the family members fear for their safety and destroy many of their belongings. Then Uncle and Jiichan are taken to a prison camp, and the others are eventually sent to an assembly center at a racetrack, where they live in a horse stable. When they’re moved to the Arizona desert, Sumiko misses the routine of her old life and struggles with despair. New friends help; she grows a garden with her neighbor and develops a tender relationship with a Mohave boy. She learns from him that the camp is on land taken from the Mohave reservation and finds that the tribe’s plight parallels that of the incarcerated Japanese Americans. Kadohata brings into play some complex issues, but they realistically dovetail with Sumiko’s growth from child to young woman. She is a sympathetic heroine, surrounded by well-crafted, fascinating people. The concise yet lyrical prose conveys her story in a compelling narrative that will resonate with a wide audience.–Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA . [chapter book, ages 12-16]
2. So Far From the Sea by Eve Bunting
Laura Iwaski and her family visit her grandfather’s grave at the Manzanar War Relocation center where he died during internment. Both her parents were relocated though at different camps. Her father was a little boy when this happened and this marks the last time they will visit before moving to Boston. Their final visit sums up the attitude of most Japanese-Americans who were forced to relocate: a terrible thing that happened to them. But , as the Dad says, “Sometimes in the end there is no right or wrong. It is just a thing that happened long years ago. A thing that cannot be changed.” [picture book, ages 8-12]
1. Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
Ken Mochizuki’s were interned at Minidoka Internment camp in Idaho, and this is the story based on true events, of how they used baseball to cope. The little boy in the story is small for his age, but preserves to become an excellent player. The story continues post-internment and things are not better. Luckily, the boy’s skill in baseball helps to bring everyone together. This is the author’s first picture book. [picture book, ages 8-12]
To examine any book more closely, please click on image of book.